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The Expansion of Surveillance Studies

May 1, 2009

I’ve been away in Scotland at a special seminar organised by Mike Nellis, Kirstie Ball and Richard Jones, hence the lack of posts this week. It has been based in the Institute of Advanced Studies at Strathclyde, a place set up to encourage ‘unconstrained thinking’, but to aid this still further, two of the days were on the island of Jura where wireless is still something you listen to. The other people involved were Michael Nagenbourg from Germany, who is also involved with an ongoing project on human implantation with myself and Kirstie, Anders Albrechtslund from Denmark, Mark Renzema from the USA, Francisco Klauser from Switzerland (via Durham!), Kevin Haggerty from Canada and David Wills from England, whose PhD I examined not so long ago. Charles Raab also joined us for the days in Glasgow, although he didn’t come to Jura, and we had a talk from Jim Frazer, a DNA expert.

We were on Jura because it was the place where George Orwell wrote Nineteen Eighty-Four during 1946 and 1947, whilst he was also dying of tuberculosis. We couldn’t visit his cottage (it is a long way beyond the end of the main road), but we spent two days in the company of Ken McLeod, one of my favourite contemporary science fiction writers, whose most recent books, The Execution Channel and The Night Sessions feature surveillance as a key element of both world and plot. The aim seems to have been to rethink everything we thought we knew about surveillance through both traditional seminar session but also through the consideration of scenarios and of course, sf writing, films and even computer games.

And I have to say it has worked. I am not quite sure what conclusions I have come to but I have been shaken out of a kind of complacency that affects us all about what we just ‘do’ and what we take for granted in order to enable this. For me, this has been particularly important because my current project is specifically designed to rethink and shake up ideas around ‘surveillance’ and ‘surveillance society’, but perhaps I have not been radical enough. The tendency of surveillance studies to make ‘imperial moves’ as it grows and inevitably institutionalises to a certain extent (however open access and open source and friendly we try to keep it), is something about which I should be more concerned. In some ways, I have been one of the surveillance studies academics most keen to expand what surveillance studies is and not to limit it to being a subset of sociology. Indeed I criticised Sean Hier and Josh Greenberg’s Surveillance Studies Reader on these grounds in the relaunch issue of Surveillance & Society earlier this year, however I think I was probably somewhat unfair to do so, and what seemed obvious to me about the field may not actually be as unarguable as I had proposed. Of course not everything is surveillance as seems to be the unfortunate starting point of some of the less good stuff in the field, but surveillance studies may not even, as David Lyon has claimed, be able to add something to everything and further, for the sake of academic social relations, maybe it should not…

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